Recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that about 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. between June 2019 and May 2020—the highest number of overdose deaths in a 12-month period in U.S. history.
During that period, overdose deaths increased more than 20% in 25 states and Washington, D.C. Continuing increases in overdose deaths for the 12-month periods ending in February, March, April and May suggest that the rise was accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Synthetic opioids were “the primary driver of increases in overdose deaths,” CDC reported, noting that such deaths increased 38.4% in the period ending in May, with 37 of 38 jurisdictions with available data on synthetic opioids available reporting increases. While deaths involving illicit fentanyl in eastern states historically, the largest increases in the period ending in May occurred in 10 western states—a finding consistent with recent increases in the availability of illicit fentanyl in the West, per CDC.
In light of its findings, CDC offered the following recommendations:
- Expand the provision and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education. This includes healthcare providers and community leaders raising awareness about: the changing availability geographically of illicit fentanyl, co-use of fentanyl and other illicit substances, infrequent mixing of illicit fentanyl into supplies of cocaine and methamphetamine.
- Expand access to and provision of SUD treatment. CDC encourages providers to treat opioid with FDA-approved medications and ensure treatment access, especially for individuals transitioning in from institutional settings. For stimulant use disorders, CDC recommends psychosocial therapies combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Intervene early with individuals at high risk for overdose. Health departments and harm reduction organizations are encouraged to link at-risk people with care and track their retention in programs, and consider expanding peer navigator programs or recovery coaches. CDC recommends that public safety officials divert individuals with low-level drug offenses to case management and supportive wrap-around services instead of incarceration.
- Improve detection of overdose outbreaks due to fentanyl, fentanyl analogs or other drugs. Public health departments are asked to track trends in drug supply and overdoses using local, state and federal data systems and toxicological testing. Medical examiners and coroners should screen specimens for fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, and other novel psychoactive substances.